When it comes to bare-knuckle political lobbying, 12-year-old Claudia Conway is a chip off the old block. Today her mother, Kellyanne Conway, the Republican pollster credited with turning round Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, will be celebrating her 50th birthday at the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States.
As his special counsellor, Conway is looking forward to life as the most powerful woman in the White House, but there’s trouble back home in Alpine, New Jersey. One month ago, shortly after Trump announced the appointment, Claudia began an online petition aimed at her mother and father.
“The Conway family might be moving to Washington DC,” she wrote on change.org. “I am sad to hear this, but believe that if I can get enough people to sign this petition, the plan may be reconsidered.” Claudia and her three siblings “love our community, friends, and nearby family”.
Claudia’s mother was born Kellyanne Elizabeth Fitzpatrick on January 20, 1967, in Camden, New Jersey, where her Irish father owned a small transport company and her Italian mother worked in a bank. Her parents divorced when she was three years old.
“I grew up in a house with my mum and her mum, and two of my mother’s unmarried sisters,” she recalled in 2008. It was in this all-female environment in Atco, a “blue-collar farming community”, that the foundations of her conservatism were laid. “Family and faith and self-reliance were premier,” she told Newsmax.
The only woman to have run a successful US presidential campaign was once a high school cheerleader and in 1983, at the age of 16, won the New Jersey Blueberry Queen beauty pageant. But these two staples of US life offer fewer clues to Conway’s future success than her 1987 victory in a blueberry speed-packing contest.
For eight years through school and college she worked on a local fruit farm and was a fast and “intensely motivated worker”, Conway’s first boss Bill DiMeo recalled this month. When the contest was judged a tie, she demanded a re-count – and won. “Everything I learned about life and business started on that farm,” she said last year.
In 1989 she graduated in political science from Trinity College, Washington, before studying law at George Washington University Law School. Though she practised for a few years, she gave up law for politics and describes herself as a “fully recovered” lawyer. After a brief sojourn at two consulting firms, in 1993 she started The Polling Company, providing consultancy services to businesses, lobby groups and Republican politicians. Her WomanTrend division sought to “better connect corporate America with the female consumer”.
Conway was “absolutely brilliant”, one former political client recalled recently. “She understands the data [and] knows what you’ve got to do to reach that constituency. She never let ideology get in the way of smart political behaviour.”
In 2005, Conway co-authored a book, What Women Really Want, with Celinda Lake, a leading political strategist for the Democratic Party. “Single women,” they wrote, were becoming “the most desirable demographic – fervently courted by industry … and not putting their lives on hold until Mr Right comes along”.
Conway’s Mr Right was New York lawyer George T Conway. She was 34 when they married in 2001 and they now have four children.
She met her future boss in 2006, while she was on the residents’ board at Trump World Tower in Manhattan and they stayed in touch. When Trump made his infamous proposal in 2015 to ban Muslims from the US, he cited a poll that had been carried out by Conway’s firm. The Polling Company told the media Trump’s policy proposal had “no backing in the survey”.
Nevertheless, in March 2015 Trump offered Conway a job on his presidential campaign team. She turned him down, she later said, because she didn’t like the idea that people would see her as just “whispering in his ear about what he should say to women”.
The woman who would nevertheless become known as The Trump Whisperer began the 2016 presidential race working for his Republican rival Ted Cruz but, after Cruz lost, Trump reached out again. On July 1, as Trump’s run for the presidency appeared fatally crippled amid gaffes and slumping polls, Conway was appointed senior adviser, and by August 17 was in charge of the entire campaign.
Trump’s new campaign manager, said New York magazine, was “a veteran Republican pollster [and] cable-gabber … who has made something of a specialty out of teaching wild men how to be less threatening to swing voters, especially women”.
Overnight Conway was omnipresent in news studios, “propelling the Trump candidacy against all odds”, as one observer put it.
Conway’s genius lay in spotting, and exploiting, the wriggle-room in Trump’s perceived disdain for women. Lowlights during the campaign included the branding of comedian Rosie O’Donnell as “disgusting”, with a “fat pig face”, while the tape of Trump discussing his attitudes to women, leaked in October, would have finished most candidates.
But Conway knew what women wanted. For a start, as she said in one interview in July, “a critical mass of women have not said they’d vote for Hillary Clinton”, while behind the scenes, as The Washington Post noted, “the woman hired to fix Trump’s image with women [is] nudging the Republican presidential nominee to stop insulting his critics’ looks and display more compassion”.
Not that Conway is above clashing with the sisterhood. After Meryl Streep criticised Trump during a speech at the Golden Globes for mimicking the disability of a reporter in 2015, Conway attacked her on Twitter and Fox News, accusing America’s most revered actress of “inciting people’s worst instincts”.
At times, Conway’s dogged defence of Trump’s frequently indefensible Twitterings has approached the farcical. “You always want to go by what’s come out of his mouth rather than look at what’s in his heart,” she chided one CNN presenter.
Such episodes inspired Saturday Night Live’s portrayal of Conway as a working mother whose attempt to enjoy a rare day off is continuously frustrated by having to fight Trump fires. Unlike Trump, whose tweets about his portrayal by SNL’s Alec Baldwin showed he has no sense of humour, Conway has played the good sport, praising comedian Kate McKinnon for doing “a great job … she’s got me down pat”.
Today, Conway is in the White House, despite having previously fretted publicly about the impact such a role might have on her family, and it remains to be seen whether husband and children join her in Washington.
So far, Claudia’s petition has garnered 139 signatures. But as the US presidential campaign demonstrated, if anyone can swing an undecided electorate, it’s a Conway.